Hope in Bethlehem

Stories of the creation of Christmas carols are uplifting, sometimes humorous, but always they bring me joy as I see how God has used people of all walks to bring us His message. The following story of the creation of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is one of my favorites. This carol came from the soul of a man who was in deep despair and found the hope he so needed in the little village where Jesus was born.

Phillips Brooks was born in Boston, December, 1835 and died in Boston, January, 1893. He has been called “the greatest preacher of the 19th century.” He was known for freeing slaves and for hi influence in allowing former slaves to vote. He was chosen in 1865 to deliver the sermon at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.

Brooks had already been fighting fatigue and the dark hopelessness of the times even before Lincoln’s assassination. Praying for strength, he was able to offer hope at Lincoln’s funeral, but afterward he felt broken and unable to go on. In spite of all he’d contributed in volumes of sermons and compassionate pastoring, he felt completely inadequate and empty.

Brooks took a sabbatical and traveled in the Holy Land. Experiences there rejuvenated him and he eagerly returned to his congregation. But no matter how he prayed and sought after the words, he couldn’t explain to his flock how precious his experiences had been walking where Jesus walked.

He told his people how he’d felt burdened even in Jerusalem on Christmas Eve, 1865, and had borrowed a horse to travel out into the countryside, to get away from the crowds. He found himself at twilight in the village of Bethlehem and entered a small church where, as he describes it, his “heart sang.” He writes of that experience: “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.

It had been a strange and wonderful experience, yet Phillips Brooks knew his congregation wasn’t “getting it.” He longed for them to understand.

It was Christmas Eve, 1868, three years after his return, as he sat at his desk trying to prepare for the Christmas Day services, when he felt a certain release, a powerful peace. He was able then to pen the words to Oh Little Town of Bethlehem. He rushed to share his poem with his friend and organist Lewis Redner who exclaimed that this was “it”; he could see now what Brooks was talking about.

Lewis Redner (1831-1908) and Phillips Brooks had worked together to draw hundreds of children into studying the Bible and singing songs together. When Brooks showed him his poem it was understood between them that Redner needed to compose a melody for the poem that very day. He set to work and struggled, trying one tune after another, but none was appropriate for Brooks’ powerful and descriptive poem. Finally, he went to bed, spent and dejected at his failure.

He woke up in the night with a simple straightforward tune in his head and stumbled quickly to try it out on Brooks’ poem. It matched perfectly, a gift from heaven!

The children sang Oh Little Town of Bethlehem for the first time Christmas Day, 1868.

How many times has God used the valley of despair to bring hope and joy to His children, to us who plow along in the darkness. Read the words to this carol (two stanzas of) and take hope, dear friends.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by;

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

How silently, how silently

The wondrous Gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming,

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive Him still,

The dear Christ enters in.

—Phillips Brooks

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